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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Cello Sonata No 1, H277 (1939) [17:53]
Cello Sonata No 2, H286 (1941) [20:57]
Cello Sonata No 3, H340 (1952) [21:05]
Petr Nouzovský (cello)
Gérard Wyss (piano)
rec. 2018/19, Sound Studio Hamu
ARCO DIVA UP0212-2 131 [60:13]

I have reviewed a number of sets of the Martinů Cello Sonatas over the years. Stephen Isserlis’ second cycle – the first was with Peter Evans on Hyperion – with Oli Mustonen was a Mark of Zorro performance; rapier sharp and rapid. The Watkins Brothers on Chandos go for the Tough Love school – abrasive and intense. Mattia Zappa and Massimiliano Mainolfi are defiant and don’t hang around either, though their studio recording is Arctic-cold; in tempo decisions their readings hearken more to the 1982-83 Supraphon set made by Josef Chuchro and Josef Hála rather than the template-setting, virtuosic and fleet 1990 Starker and Firkušný on RCA Red Seal 61220.

My last encounter with cellist Petr Nouzovský was on a miscellaneous collection on Arco Diva UP0178 2 131 but of more relevance in the context is the fact that he has recorded both Martinů Cello Concertos, the Sonata da Camera and the Concertino for MDG. He and his most adept collaborator Gérard Wyss tend more to the measured tempi of Chuchro and Hála. Rhythms aren’t pushed beyond the motoric velocity range. Rather, they build incrementally from within and are astutely calibrated across each of the three sonatas. What one misses from the vitality of the second Isserlis reading is compensated for in a kind of reflective intensity unrelated to mere speed. There’s a natural-sounding flexibility to the First Sonata, where Wyss finds enough space to articulate the witty chatter between piano and cello in its first movement. The manic energy of those faster performances is missing from the central movement but for some that will be a distinct advantage.

They capture the capricious mood changes of the Second Sonata and are possibly the most overtly melancholy of all the exponents I’ve heard in the tolling motifs of the slow movement where their sense of space exceeds even that hallowed Supraphon LP pairing. For warm nostalgia the Third Sonata is in safe hands, and their conception of Poco andante differs fundamentally from that of other duos. Again, this means the music doesn’t turn on a sixpence as decisively as others – those sudden, brusque turns of phrase that Martinů indulges register the less viscerally - and when the duo takes the Allegro finale, they stress its ma non presto instruction. If the result sounds a little gawky, a bit ungainly, then that’s part of the characterisation.

As I wrote about Isserlis and Mustonen, a disc that includes a sonata by the pianist and Sibelius’ Malinconia, theirs is a cycle that takes some beating. The Watkins duo includes the two cello variations, on Slovak themes and on a theme by Rossini. Like Zappa and Mainolfi this latest disc offers just the three sonatas. If you can find a copy of Saša Večtomov and Josef Páleníček’s cycle, Supraphon’s CD replacement for the Churcho LP, you will note that they are consistently slow, indeed significantly slower than Nouzovský and Wyss in the first two sonatas at least.

Where does this leave things? It’s a question of how motoric you like your Martinů; how contrastive, intense, and vertical. Each cycle still has its strong points, not least Isserlis’ second recording. This latest well-recorded and annotated Arco Diva disc brings with it real insights into the music gleaned from experience of the other, large-scale cello works. This is a cycle of probity, thoughtfulness, and real care; it doesn’t scream and shout, but its long-term effectiveness is without question.

Jonathan Woolf

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